Read Tales From the Clarke Online

Authors: John Scalzi

Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General

Tales From the Clarke (2 page)

“The
Clarke
’s diplomatic team hasn’t been formally reassigned, either,” Balla said. “Some of them have been added on to existing missions or negotiations in a temporary capacity, but none of them has been made permanent.”

“Who did you hear this from?” Coloma asked.

“Hart Schmidt,” Balla said. “He and Ambassador Abumwe were attached to the Bula negotiations last week.”

Coloma winced at this. The Bula negotiations had gone poorly, in part because the Colonial Defense Forces had established a clandestine base on an underdeveloped Bula colony world and had gotten caught red-handed trying to evacuate it; that was the rumor, in any event. Abumwe and Schmidt having anything to do with that would not look good for them.

“So we’re all in limbo,” Coloma said.

“It looks like,” Balla said. “At least you’re not being singled out, ma’am.”

Coloma laughed at this. “Not singled out, but being punished, that’s for sure.”

“I don’t know why we would be punished,” Balla said. “We were dropped into a diplomatic process at the last minute, discovered a trap, and kept the trap from snapping shut. All without a single death. And the negotiations with the Utche were successfully completed on top of that. They give people medals for less.”

Coloma motioned to what used to be the
Clarke
. “Maybe they were just very attached to the ship.”

Balla smiled. “It seems unlikely,” she said.

“Why not?” Coloma said. “I was.”

“You did the right thing, Captain,” Balla said, becoming serious. “I said so to the investigators. So did Ambassador Abumwe and Lieutenant Wilson. If they don’t see that, to hell with them.”

“Thank you, Neva,” Coloma said. “It’s good of you to say that. Remember it when they assign us to a tow barge.”

“There are worse assignments,” Balla said.

Coloma was about to respond when her PDA pinged. She swiped to her message queue and read the mail there. Then she shut down the screen, put the PDA away and returned her gaze to what used to be the
Clarke
.

Balla watched her captain for a moment. “You’re killing me over here,” she finally said.

“Remember when you said that there are worse assignments than a tow barge?” Coloma said, to her XO.

“Considering it’s the second to last thing I said, yes,” Balla said. “Why?”

“Because we may have just gotten one of those assignments,” Coloma said.

“The ship was the
Porchester,
” Colonel Abel Rigney said. “At least for its first thirty years of service, when it was a Hampshire-class corvette in the CDF. Then it was transferred to the Department of State and renamed the
Ballantine,
after an old secretary of the department. That was another twenty years of service as a courier and supply ship. It was decommissioned last year.”

Coloma stood on the bridge with Rigney and Balla and looked over the quiet banks of monitors. The atmosphere on the ship was thin and cold, befitting a ship that no longer had a crew or a purpose. “Any immediate reason for the decommissioning?” she asked.

“Other than age? No,” Rigney said. “She ran fine.
Runs
fine, as you’ll discover when you put her through her paces. She’s just old. There are a lot of klicks on this ship, and eventually being on her began to look like a hardship assignment.”

“Hmmm,” Coloma said.

“But it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it,” Rigney said, quickly, moving past the implied but unintentional insult he’d just offered Coloma. “If you’re new to space travel, and don’t have your own fleet of ships, then what you and I see as old and past its prime will look shiny and new. The folks from Earth who we are proposing to sell this ship to are going to look at this baby as their first step into the wider universe. It’s right about their speed.”

“So that’s my job,” Coloma said. “Take a hand-me-down and convince the rubes they’re getting something that’s top of the line.”

“I wouldn’t put it like that, Captain,” Rigney said. “We’re not trying to deceive the folks from Earth. They know we’re not offering them the latest technology. But they also know they’re not trained and ready to handle our latest ships. The only real spacefaring tech they’ve had to this point are shuttlecraft working around the space station over their planet. We’ve handled everything else up to now.”

“So we’re giving them a ship with training wheels on it,” Coloma said.

“We prefer to think of it as that we’re offering them a classic piece of technology to learn on and build from,” Rigney said. “You know the Earth folks aren’t happy with the Colonial Union right now.”

Coloma nodded; that was common knowledge. And she couldn’t blame them. If she were from Earth and discovered that the Colonial Union had been using the entire planet as a farm for soldiers and colonists, she’d be pissed at it, too.

“What you probably don’t know is that the Earth folks aren’t just talking to us,” Rigney said. “The Conclave has been very aggressively courting them, too. It would be very bad for the Colonial Union if Earth decided to join the Conclave, and not just because we’d be fresh out of colonists and CDF. This ship is one of the ways we’re hoping to get back on their good side.”

“Then why are you selling it to them, sir?” Balla asked. “Why not just give it to them?”

“We’re already gifting the Earth folks lots of other technology,” Rigney said. “We don’t want to start looking like we’re offering reparations. And anyway, the governments of Earth are suspicious of us. They’re worried that we’re offering up Trojan horses to them. If we make them pay for this ship, they’re more likely to trust us. Don’t ask me about the psychology here. I’m just telling you what they tell me. We’re still giving it to them at a sharply reduced price, and mostly in barter. I think we’re selling it mostly for field corn.”

“We’re selling it to the Earth folks as a way to get our foot in the door,” Coloma said.

Rigney rolled his hand toward Coloma. “Precisely,” he said. “And so we come to you and your crew. It’s perfectly reasonable that you would see a temporary assignment to a decommissioned ship as punishment for what happened at Danavar. But in fact, Captain Coloma, Commander Balla, what we’re asking you to do is a task that’s of great importance to the Colonial Union. Your job is to highlight the ship, to make the Earth people feel that it’s going to be of benefit to them, answer all their questions and give them a positive experience with the Colonial Union. If you pull it off, you’ll be doing the Colonial Union a service. A very significant service. One that means you’ll be able to write your own ticket afterward.”

“I have your word on that, Colonel?” Coloma asked.

“No,” Rigney said. “But that’s my point. Sell this ship and you won’t need my word.”

“Understood,” Coloma said.

“Good,” Rigney said. “Now. Tour the ship, check out the systems, tell me what you need, and you’ll get it. But do it quickly. You have two weeks from today before the Earth delegation arrives to see what this ship can do. Be ready for them. Be ready for us.”

“Here’s the problem,” Marcos Basquez said, pointing to a series of tubes in the engine room of the ship. He was yelling over the din of his crew banging away at updates and repairs.

“I see tubes, Marcos,” Coloma said.

“You see power conduits,” Basquez said.

“And?” Coloma said.

“We have two types of engines on a spaceship,” Basquez said. “We got the conventional engines, which push us through normal space, and we got the skip drive, which punches holes in space-time. Both of them are powered from the same source, okay? These days, because we know what we’re doing, we can seat the engines and the skip drive in the same place. Fifty years ago, when this pile of shit was put together, we had to separate the two.” He pointed to the power conduits. “These are the conduits that send power to the skip drive from the engine.”

“All right,” Coloma said. “So what?”

“So they’re degraded and need to be replaced,” Basquez said.

“So replace them,” Coloma said.

Basquez shook his head. “If it were that easy, I wouldn’t be telling you about it. This engine design is half a century old. This ship was the last of its kind in service. There isn’t another ship out there with this engine design. They haven’t made replacement stock for this engine design in more than a decade.”

“You can’t replace the conduits because the replacement conduits don’t exist,” Coloma said.

“Right,” Basquez said.

“Power conduits are still being made,” Coloma said. “We had them all over the
Clarke
.”

“Right, but they’re not rated for this sort of power output,” Basquez said. “Trying to use the current standard conduit here would be like stuffing a Great Dane into a Chihuahua sweater.”

Coloma had to stop for a moment to take in the visual Basquez just offered. Then she said, “Would these conduits last through our mission? We’re only skipping to the Rus system and back.”

“There’s two ways of answering that,” Basquez said. “The first one is to say that these conduits
probably
won’t overload and rupture, or destroy this section of the ship, or rupture the hull, or kill everyone on board, including those important Earth visitors. The second one is that if you decide not to replace them, I hope you don’t mind if I do my work remotely, like from Phoenix Station.”

“What do you suggest?” Coloma asked.

“How much time do we have before we have to be under way?” Basquez asked.

“Twelve days,” Coloma said.

“We have two options,” Basquez said. “We comb through CDF and civilian shipyards looking for this size of conduit and hope they’re not as degraded as these are, or we commission some made from scratch from the shipyards, based on this specification, and hope they arrive in time.”

“Do both,” Coloma said.

“Belt and suspenders, very wise,” said Basquez. “This is the part where you send a note to that Rigney guy telling him to yell at people to get those parts here on time, right? I want a couple of days with them to make sure they have the capacity we’ll need.”

“I’ll do it on my way to my next meeting,” Coloma said.

“This is why I like working with you, Captain,” Basquez said, and then turned his attention to one of his engineers, who evidently needed yelling at.

Rigney promised to get the conduit specialists at the CDF shipyards on Phoenix Station on the job and told Coloma to have Basquez send the specs to him directly. Coloma smiled as she disconnected from her talk with Rigney. Civilian captains and ships were almost always prioritized below Colonial Defense Forces ships when it came time to allot materials and expertise; it was nice to be at the front of the line for once.

Coloma’s next meeting, in one of the ship’s tiny conference rooms, was with Lieutenant Harry Wilson.

“Captain,” Wilson said as she approached him. He saluted.

“Why do you do that?” Coloma asked him. She sat down at the conference room table.

“Ma’am?” Wilson said, lowering his arm.

“Why do you salute me?” Coloma asked. “You’re Colonial Defense Forces and I am not. You’re not required to salute civilian captains.”

“You still outrank me,” Wilson said.

“That’s not what you told me at Danavar, when you flashed your security clearance at me and ordered me to give you my shuttle,” Coloma said. “Which you then destroyed.”

“Sorry about that, ma’am,” Wilson said. “It was necessary at the time.”

“You still have that security clearance?” Coloma asked.

“I do,” Wilson said. “I think they forgot they gave it to me. I’m pretty harmless with it. I use it mostly to check box scores for baseball games back on Earth.”

“I understand you’ve just returned from being a hostage,” Coloma said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Wilson said. “An unfortunate incident with the Bula. We ended up with six of their ships planning to blow us out of the sky. Ambassador Abumwe was part of the diplomatic team that got us released. They’re still ironing out the details of the ransom, I believe. Letting us go early was a sign of good faith. They have other things to hold over us.”

“You certainly find yourself in the middle of a number of interesting incidents,” Coloma said.

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